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John Williams: The Berlin Concert

Just in time to mark John Williams’ 90th birthday (February 8), Deutsche Grammophon has released “The Berlin Concert”—the maestro leading the Philharmonic for the first time, the players eager to prove they know the difference between Star Wars and “Über’m Sternenzelt….” The results are predictably impressive, for the BPO is an amazing ensemble, still the juggernaut of European orchestras. While there is some overlap of repertoire with 2020’s “John Williams in Vienna”—e.g., excerpts from Close Encounters, the theme from Jurassic Park, the march from Raiders of the Lost Ark, the “Imperial March” from The Empire Strikes Back—most of the Berlin program is new, including several numbers from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the Elegy for Cello and Orchestra, and Leia’s and Yoda’s themes from the original Star Wars trilogy. All worthy and well done. And yet…Berlin’s Philharmonie is not Vienna’s Musikverein, and conditions there often create sonic “whiteout” and throw a veil over the strings. Comparing the Jurassic Park and Close Encounters excerpts, for instance, the Vienna performances sound considerably more immediate, heartfelt, and “alive.” The good news? Williams goes back to Vienna in March 2022.

Jackie McLean: Destination…Out!

Jackie McLean had been a fixture of the New York jazz scene for many years before flowering—or being pushed by the likes of Coleman and Coltrane—into the more avant-garde player found on this astonishing set. With a stellar band comprising composer/trombonist Grachan Moncur III (responsible for three of these four tunes), vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, bassist Larry Ridley, and drummer Roy Haynes, things begin with the mournful ballad “Love and Hate.” “Esoteric” is a time-shifting bop workout that swings with insouciant joy; McLean’s “Kahlil the Prophet” is a hard-driving stretch in which Haynes’s dexterity and Hutcherson’s tasty accents really shine, and “Riff Raff” is a relaxed if not exactly mellow blues. Recorded in 1963 by Rudy Van Gelder and mastered by Kevin Gray from the original master tapes, the sound on this edition is mind-blowingly pure, transparent, and alive, with great presence, sense of scale, and you-are-there dynamic explosiveness. Although I don’t own an original pressing, I was able to compare this new release to the 45rpm version Music Matters released in 2011. Knowing that series well, I was taken aback by how murky, unfocused, and dull-sounding that version seems compared to this damn-near perfect record. 

John Coltrane: Crescent

Released in July of 1964, Crescent occupies a unique place in the discography of John Coltrane’s classic quartet, as it’s the first studio album where an unaugmented version of the group recorded a full album of all-original material. The recordings took place earlier that year at Van Gelder Studios, where the music literally received the white glove treatment. Mastered by Ryan K. Smith at Sterling Sound from the original analog tapes, the Acoustic Sounds vinyl edition of the stereo recording stands out for its transparency, pinpointing the individual contributions of each band member and also capturing the synergy of an ensemble that, since its first performance in 1960, continued to reach new musical heights. The deep, woody sound of Jimmy Garrison’s bass solo on “Lonnie’s Lament” and the timbre of Elvin Jones’ drum solo on “The Drum Thing” have a startling in-the-room presence. On “Wise One” and on the quieter passages that appear on the title track and “Lonnie Lament,” the nuanced interplay between all four musicians (including the piano work of McCoy Tyner) is worth savoring. And when the quartet launches into “Bessie’s Blues,” it delivers a lesson in swing. Quite simply, the masters at work. 

Future TAS: Marantz Model 40n

Marantz’s new integrated amplifier features exquisite design and is constructed from the finest materials, adding elegance to any room. There’s built-in access to music streaming from Spotify Connect, Apple Music via AirPlay, Pandora, Tidal, and many more services. The Model 40n also provides access to high-resolution personal-file libraries up to 192kHz/24-bit PCM, as well as up to 5.6MHz DSD. Wireless connectivity options include Apple AirPlay, Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi with HEOS. The new 70Wpc (8 ohms) Class AB amplifier stage leverages the company’s proprietary Hyper-Dynamic Amplifier Modules, plus a new larger power-supply transformer, four output transistors per channel, heavy copper busbars, and discrete surface-mount components. Short power pathways lower internal impedance and deliver high instant current capability, making the Model 40n an excellent match for even difficult-to-drive loudspeakers. The unit sports a full complement of analog and digital inputs to accommodate any source, including Marantz Musical Phono EQ and an HDMI ARC (Audio Return Channel) input for audio playback from a TV.

Price:$2499

marantz.com

Future TAS: Luxman M-10X Amplifier

An uncompromising new power amplifier from Luxman, the M-10X embodies advanced design methods to combine sonic nuance with formidable power. Connoisseurs of Luxman will immediately recognize the massively overbuilt heat-sink stacks, giant power transformer, super-sized 80,000µF filter capacitors, and quadruple-parallel push-pull output stage with 16 transistors per channel. The result is prodigious power into just about any conceivable load: not only 150Wpc into 8 ohms, but also an instantaneous 1200Wpc into 1 ohm. The front panel is understated in white-finished aluminum, with small-diameter function switches and generous, needle-type analog level meters, illuminated by incandescent LEDs. The left-channel power-output meter is located in the front-panel’s center, recognizing that the amplifier can be converted to BTL (balanced transformerless) mono operation. In this mode, the M-10X can output 300W. All circuit boards feature gold-plated, low-resistance, 100μm-thick copper signal traces, plus a strictly regulated, high-coupling, low-loss, EI-type power transformer with flat copper windings.


Price: $19,995

luxmanamerica.com

Duck Baker’s Wide-Ranging Music

Acoustic fingerstyle guitarist and TAS contributor Duck Baker has for over five decades demonstrated an ethnomusicologist’s knowledge and devotee’s love for a dizzying array of musical styles. From Scottish and Irish fiddle tunes to blues, gospel, jazz, and avant-garde, Baker has tackled it all with reverence and dedication while putting his own idiosyncratic stamp on the proceedings. You could say that his spiritual forefather was John Fahey, the eccentric fingerstyle innovator who established the American primitive guitar school in the 1950s and demonstrated a love of everything from Charlie Patton to Harry Smith, Charlie Feathers, Captain Beefheart, the Stanley Brothers, and Albert Ayler.

While Baker has been steadily releasing a new album every year or so with little fanfare, beginning with 1975’s There’s Something for Everyone in America on Stefan Grossman’s Kicking Mule label, 2021 has seen a flood of Duck product on the market, each a unique undertaking with its own merits. 

Baker flashes his avant-garde instincts on Confabulations (ESP-Disk). A collection of duos and trios recorded between 1994 and 2017, it harkens back to Duck’s freewheeling encounter with fellow guitarists Eugene Chadbourne and Randy Hutton on The Guitar Trio in Calgary, 1977 (Emanem). Duck is joined here by a cast of notable British and American avant-garde musicians. Alto saxophonist Michael Moore locks horns with the guitarist on the edgy and angular “Imp Romp 2” while American bassist Mark Dresser creates otherworldly overtones, textures, and resounding arco lines against Baker’s faithful rendering of the American traditional folk song “Shenandoah.” “Indie Pen” has him engaging in frantic exchanges with British avant-garde guitarist Derek Bailey, and “East River Delta Blues” finds him interacting freely with trombonist Roswell Rudd, both participants reacting in the moment like veritable quote machines. “Ode to Jo” is a spirited, swinging variation on Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” with clarinetist Alex Ward and bassist Joe Williamson that evolves into some freeform collective improv by the trio. Perhaps the most fiercely outré tracks here are the free quartet piece “Tourbillion Air” with clarinetist Ward, bassist John Edwards, and drummer Steve Noble, and an intimate duet with multiphonics-playing tenor saxophonist John Butcher on “Missing Chandler.” Baker touches on bits of humor in his second encounter with Rudd on “Signing Off,” again chockfull of quotes from familiar jazz standards. 

The two kindred spirits hook up in an even deeper way on Live (Dot Time), which documents their mercurial chemistry on enchanting renditions of three Thelonious Monk tunes (“Light Blue,” “Well You Needn’t,” and “Bemsha Swing”) and a raucous, good-timey take on Jelly Roll Morton’s “Buddy Bolden’s Blues.” Rudd’s signature vocalizations are particularly evident through his animated plunger work on Herbie Nichols’ “The Happenings.” And be prepared to play the quote game on their rendition of “Show.” Rudd also delivers in stirring fashion on “A Bouquet for JJ,” his unaccompanied ode to legendary jazz trombonist JJ Johnson.

Cumino in Mia Cucina (Confront) is a series of freely improvised duets between Baker and fellow renegade guitarist Mike Cooper recorded in Cooper’s kitchen in 2010, when Duck was visiting his old friend in Rome. With the exception of the haunting slide guitar vehicle, “Fieno Greco,” and the delicate, conversational “Chiodi Di Garofano,” this one is strictly about reacting with splintered fragments of sonic shrapnel. 

Coffee for Three (Copepod) features the three musicians who joined Baker so successfully for one track on Confabulations—clarinetist Ward, bassists Edwards, and drummer Noble. Together they navigate intricate Baker compositions while finding plenty of open spaces within the pieces for free-for-all improv segments. Some of Baker’s writing here, like on “Breakdown Lane,” “The Legend of the Legend of Bebop,” “No Family Planning,” and the buoyantly swinging title track, reflects the influence of Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy, Herbie Nichols, and maybe even Lennie Tristano. And while Duck is a stalwart on guitar throughout, British clarinetist Ward nearly steals the show with his improv pyrotechnics. Recorded in 2018 at the Vortex Jazz Club in London, this potent quartet should turn heads on the UK jazz scene in a revived post-pandemic environment.

From the Duck archives comes Not the First Time (Fulica). A collection of previously unreleased solo recordings from 1977–1989, these straightforward readings of rags, blues, Irish melodies, and enduring songs (“Sweet Lorraine,” “You Are My Sunshine”) highlight Baker’s remarkable fingerstyle command and contrapuntal brilliance. The engaging “Lord Renbourn” is a salute to the innovative British folk-jazz-classical-guitarist John Renbourn, who had recorded duets with Baker on 1994’s A Thousand Words (Acoustic Music Records). Fans of Fahey, Leo Kottke Tommy Emmanuel, Richard Thompson, and Chet Atkins will thoroughly enjoy this portrait of the artist as a young hotshot. 

Radiohead’s Kid A Mnesia

Radiohead’s Kid A Mnesia is a compendium of two of the band’s most important albums, Kid A and Amnesiac, both of which were released some 20 years ago as a follow up to 1997’s massively successful OK Computer. After a seemingly endless, often-tense tour in support of that album, Radiohead was physically, emotionally, and musically depleted. The band needed to refresh itself and chose to do so by ditching the guitar-heavy motif of OK Computer and going all in on keyboard-focused musical experimentation. 

Those sessions produced two full albums’ worth of material. Yet Radiohead decided not to release a double album. Instead, they split the tracks over two albums, which they released eight months apart. Both (although more so Kid A) were hailed as masterpieces that pointed the way to a new direction in rock.

Radiohead has apparently changed its mind about multi-album sets, because this year they packaged together not only Kid A and Amnesiac but a third album of bonus material as well. The triple-album set is called Kid A Mnesia. Finally, we can hear just how seamlessly the original two albums elide, one into the other.  

For those unfamiliar with this music, let me first say that it can barely be considered rock. Few tracks have traditional verse/chorus structures, although a couple (e.g., “Optimistic,” with its killer hook) were included just to show that could still do that. On the lyrics side of the equation, there aren’t many narratives. Instead, we get jarring, bizarre imagery such as “Yesterday I woke up/Sucking a lemon,”—a line, ironically, from “Everything in its Right Place.” 

Nor are there many standard rock chords. Instead of stock majors and minors, we get lots of sevenths and ninths. Sometimes, these are played off against “normal” chords for effect. Listen, for example, to “Morning Bell,” where the uncharacteristically-sunny chords behind Thom Yorke’s “Release me” line contrast sharply with the more typically-dystopian chords that undergird verses like “Cut the kids in half.” (The song is about a divorce.) 

“Pyramid Song” is the collection’s most experimental song, and arguably its best. The track supplants rock’s sacred 4/4 rhythm with a lattice of complex, ever-shifting time signatures. Consequently, the main theme, introduced on an acoustic piano, initially sounds tentative, sloppy even. 

But as more parts join in, it becomes clear that the rhythms aren’t tentative, nor is the playing slipshod. The theme sounds off-kilter at first because the rhythms are highly unusual for rock. Yet when the drums come in, those rhythms start to make sense. By the time the full orchestra arrives, your notion of what’s strange and what’s normal has evolved; the rhythms now seem perfectly natural. Meanwhile, another evolution is taking place. From its simple beginning, “Pyramid Song” builds to a tense grandeur that would have been impossible to reach within rock’s standard strictures. 

Obviously, Radiohead wasn’t aiming for another OK Computer-style hit, yet both albums were immediate hits. How could that be? My guess is it comes down to the music’s sheer beauty. For all its envelope stretching, Radiohead seemed incapable of abandoning gorgeous melodies. 

There is mixed news on the sonics front. In a major disappointment, Radiohead didn’t take this opportunity to remaster the music. Nor did the band bother to release higher than CD-resolution digital options. Unsurprisingly, the new and old CDs, downloads, and streams all sound identical.

Another disappointment: the sound itself isn’t great. Digital versions, especially, suffer from an upper octave so truncated, everything sounds muted. Dynamics and bass are subdued as well. 

The news is much better on the vinyl front. The original albums are available in 10” vinyl, and these blow away the digital versions. The upper end regains extension, and bass that you didn’t even know was missing comes to the fore. The new release is available in several triple-LP sets: domestic, imported, and red vinyl. Fortunately, they all sound much the same as the original LPs.   

This leads to the question of whether you should buy Kid A Mnesia. The litmus test is simple: If you don’t already have both Kid A and Amnesiac as LPs, then you should definitely pick up the vinyl version of the new album. Otherwise, the question comes down to whether the bonus album has any merit. For Radiohead diehards, it does. I personally wouldn’t want to be without the “True Love Waits” version of “Pulk/Pull” or the country-tinged “Follow Me Around.” The disc closes with “How to Disappear Into Strings,” which is simply the string arrangement—isolated from everything else—of “How to Disappear Completely.” Far from a throwaway, the track makes evident that this material’s beauty isn’t limited to the melodies; it’s layered and goes deep.

A Minister of Music

Ask Steven Bernstein what he appreciates about Catherine Russell and the bandleader is quick to heap on praise. “As a vocalist, she’s pure humanity, but then she has all the technique, on both the sonic level and a rhythmic level, to put her in this very special group of musicians who operate at that high of a plane,” says Bernstein, a slide trumpeter and founder of the avant-jazz ensemble Sexmob, among other groups. “Truth be told, she’s a minister of music, but with the absolute chops and knowledge necessary to be just as great as any musician can possibly be.”

On the recent Good Time Music (Royal Potato Family), Russell fronts Bernstein’s Millennial Territory Orchestra through a rousing set of six early jazz and blues numbers. The record spotlights the sassy vocals that have put Russell on the call sheet of such A-list acts as David Bowie, Paul Simon, Wynton Marsalis, and Donald Fagen—she contributed to both 2021’s Northeast Corridor: Steely Dan Live! and Donald Fagen’s The Nightfly: Live. Russell also shared a 2012 Grammy Award for her raucous spin on Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues” on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire soundtrack, earned a pair of Grammy nominations for her solo albums, and appeared in the 2019 film Bolden, a dramatic portrayal of New Orleans jazz-cornet legend Buddy Bolden.  

NPR once opined that Russell has “a voice that wails like a horn and whispers like a snake in the Garden of Eden.”

Her newly released eighth solo album, Send for Me (Dot Time), continues in that vein. It features romantic swing songs by Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Betty Carter, Joe Liggins, Helen Humes, and Louis Armstrong, among others. “A good story makes a good song—one that you can live through while you sing it,” Russell says. “I like a good melody.”

Send for Me also includes “At the Swing Cats Ball,” co-written by her father, Luis Russell, the pioneering Panamanian jazz pianist, composer, and orchestra leader who served for several years as Louis Armstrong’s music director. It’s Russell’s latest tribute to her father. “The first song I recorded on my very first album, Cat, is called ‘Sad Lover Blues,’ which my father’s orchestra recorded in 1946,” she says. 

After Luis’ death in 1963, Catherine’s mother, Carline Ray—a classically trained vocalist and guitarist—encouraged her then-young daughter’s interests as a dancer and musician. “I knew my father for the first seven years of my life,” Russell says. “My mother was a professional choral singer at that time, as well as being a session bass player, so I used to go to recording sessions with her as well as classical choral rehearsals. It was very exciting to see how everything was done. After my father passed, mom and I would listen to our little radio in the kitchen every morning, and we’d listen to the popular music of the time on a [WNEW] show called ‘Make-Believe Ballroom.’ This is where I heard everyone from Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, and Bobby Darin to Ella Fitzgerald and Eydie Gormé. Then we’d watch TV variety shows at night with many of the same artists. My mother also took me to jazz gigs, so I heard Thelonious Monk, as well as attending Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts. We also listened to classical music and opera at home, and attended opera performances. I had a good cultural upbringing in New York City.”

In the 1980s, while visiting a Manhattan nightclub, guitarist and bandleader Jimmy Vivino invited Russell onstage to perform with Fagen. She made an impression—in 1992, Fagen asked her to join his New York Rock and Soul Revue. She stayed for a couple of years before moving on to Bowie’s Heathen tour and sessions for his Reality album. In 2004, after failing health sidelined Bowie, Russell signed to Harmonia Mundi and recorded her solo debut. Each successive solo album brought praise from the pundits—in 2016, Jazz Times declared that her rendition of Irving Berlin’s “Harlem on My Mind” qualified Russell as “a post-millennial answer to Dinah Washington.”

In 2008, Bernstein contributed two horn arrangements to Russell’s second album, Sentimental Streak, recorded at Levon Helm’s Barn in Woodstock, New York. The following year, he asked Russell to join his Hot 9 band on its critically acclaimed tour with New Orleans pianist and vocalist Henry Butler. It was the beginning of a fruitful collaboration. “They can play anything, which gives me the freedom to express myself in different ways within the same song,” Russell says of Bernstein’s band. “It’s really fun!”

Bernstein is no less effusive: “She’s singing from a higher power and from a higher place,” he says. “She is the rarest combination of spirit and science, and the kind of human who makes the world a better place just by being in the room.” 

Spielberg’s West Side Story

Steven Spielberg’s new film of West Side Story has been greeted for the most part with enthusiastic reviews that nevertheless sound a curious note of confusion and misapprehension. Questioning why we need another film at all, many reviewers label it a “remake” and refer to the first film, directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, released in 1961, as the “original.” Can these reviewers be unaware West Side Story has always had a vigorous life prior to and apart from the movies? West Side Story began life in 1949 when Jerome Robbins thought a new kind of musical could be fashioned from reimagining Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in New York City, the Capulets and Montagues eventually becoming the Jets and Sharks, white and Puerto Rican teenage gangs at war with each another. Robbins brought in Arthur Laurents to write the book (Broadway parlance for the play with dialogue), Leonard Bernstein the music, and Stephen Sondheim the lyrics, Robbins himself as director and choreographer. If there is an “original” West Side Story, this book, this music, these lyrics, and the choreography are it. Every production, whether on stage, film, or record, is only a version of the work itself.

Introduced to West Side Story at age ten when his father brought home the original Broadway cast album, Spielberg had the songs memorized by the time he saw the film four years later. While he loved it and considers it a masterpiece, it left him nurturing a desire to make a version of his own. When desire met opportunity several decades later, he turned to the original sources, enlisting the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner (Angels in America), with whom he had collaborated on Munich and Lincoln, to fashion a new screenplay from Laurents’s book. Kushner added new scenes, repurposed others, fleshed out the characters with back stories, and created one wholly new character—Valentina, the widow of Doc, who owned the drug store where Tony works—so there would be a role for the ’61 movie’s Anita, Rita Moreno, perhaps more indelibly associated with West Side Story in the public mind than anyone else. Kushner expanded the Hispanic side of the drama, advancing the time frame from 1957 to 1959, the year the black and Puerto Rican San Juan Hill community of west side Manhattan was demolished to make room for the Lincoln Center arts complex, thus sounding themes Spielberg requested of poverty, urban renewal, gentrification, and the destruction of ethnic neighborhoods. 

Both director and writer went about this with such respect for Laurents’s original that, almost miraculously, the new film is still recognizably West Side Story, even as it’s a richer, more complex experience. Bursting with color and vitality, electric with energy and movement, it’s at once the fiercest, grittiest, most hard-edged and realistic production I’ve ever seen and, paradoxically, the most lyrical, poetic, and romantic. And because Spielberg cast it with actors, mostly unknowns, who look and sound as if they’re actual teenagers close to but not quite adults—Rachel Zegler, the Maria, was cast before she turned 18—this is the most vibrantly youthful West Side Story in my considerable experience of the work.

Spielberg and Kushner also retained some of the Wise-Robbins changes. As in the ‘61 film, the argument in “America” is between the women and their Shark boyfriends, to incalculably sharper wit and focus than in the book, where it’s women only. In his ’61 screenplay, Ernest Lehman transposed “Cool” and “Office Krupke,” the former relocated after the rumble, the latter before, a change Sondheim especially liked (so do I): the hijinks of “Krupke” making no sense after the rumble, the frenzied panic of “Cool” exactly on point after the gang leaders’ deaths. Kushner kept “Krupke” in first act but returned “Cool” there as well, whereupon he wholly reimagined the scene that surrounds it, brilliantly solving every structural, dramatic, and tonal problem the book’s placement caused. Like the ’61 version, this one jettisons the second act “Ballet,” a dream-cum-fantasy sequence where “Somewhere” is sung by a disembodied voice placed in the orchestra. Wise-Robbins made the song into a duet for Tony and Maria; Spielberg-Kushner assign it to Moreno, who sings it over a meditative montage. While this deprives the main couple of a musical expression of their anguished attempts at hope, Moreno’s performance, soft-voiced, at times whispery, is almost unbearably poignant, the lyrics pointing equally toward Valentina and Doc, also a mixed couple, as toward the young lovers.   

West Side Story was both groundbreaking and mold-shattering in the unprecedented role Bernstein assigned the orchestra. “Prologue,” “The Dance at the Gym,” “The Rumble,” and the Act II “Ballet” are for orchestra alone or mostly so. “Cool” is a song, but over half of it is instrumental (a fugue, no less) and, like “Quintet” and “America,” is clearly orchestra driven; the orchestra is also an equal partner in the rest of the songs. In terms of inspiration, complexity, and the soaring skill and musicianship required, Bernstein’s score is the most difficult and demanding ever written for a musical. Little wonder John Williams advised Spielberg to engage Gustavo Dudamel and the New York Philharmonic, and enlist David Newman, a highly accomplished film composer himself (of over a hundred scores, several award winning), to arrange the music where needed for added scenes (his new setting of “Somewhere” exquisite). 

Dudamel too was introduced to West Side Story at a very young age, grasps the idiom cold, and conducts the score as if to the manner born (hardly surprising considering the Latin American sources Bernstein drew upon). There’s not a better played or more excitingly performed West Side Story than what is on this album (available on CD, streaming, and vinyl), the recording taken directly from the film soundtrack (not re-recorded for album release, as is typical of soundtracks), with fantastically clean, detailed, transparent, and dynamic sonics, brilliant yet without glare or blare. Voices and instruments are true to timbre, and in the quieter, more lyrical passages, like the “Balcony Scene,” “One Hand, One Heart,” and the “Finale,” playing and recording are so beautiful as to disarm criticism.

Dudamel finds the right tempo, mood, tone, and attitude for every number. In “The Dance at the Gym” he generates scorching heat, by turns carnal and aggressive, until the meeting scene’s pas de deux, a lilting “Cha-Cha,” here so rhymthmically on point it’s sweet without a hint of the cloying. Speaking of aggression, in the “Prologue,” the one big number recorded in Hollywood, where Dudamel’s own orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, was pressed into service, together they nail the combination of the Jets’ swagger and hostility, and for once, all the guitar parts are actually audible. And in “The Rumble,” more any other conductor on record he flinches not a blink before the uncompromising violence Bernstein wrote into the score.

As for the singing, in addition to looking right, every major cast member had to be able to act and sing. No longer having to endure dubbed-in singing makes for an obvious improvement in the filmic experience, but it also reaps huge rewards in the listening-only experience. For the last several weeks I’ve been comparing West Side Story recordings (see sidebar). The opera singers in the composer’s recording obviously sound wrong (however beautiful), but even when conductors use singers with voices of appropriate scale and lightness, they often still sound like singers impersonating the characters and sometimes smack of the opera house (not least, it must be admitted, because Bernstein’s music courts opera and actually becomes it in places, e.g., “Maria,” the Anita-Maria duet). Coached to within an inch of their lives, whatever Spielberg’s actors who can sing may lack in sheer vocal technique or range when compared to singers as such, when I play the new soundtrack on its own, they do not sound like singers playing young people, they sound like the characters themselves brought vividly to life through words and music. No other recording of West Side Story manages this as persuasively, effectively, and movingly as this one. And Dudamel is so attentive an accompanist you never feel he is holding the instruments back out of deference to the cast.

Like any great work of the theatre, West Side Story was a collaborative effort by four prodigiously gifted artists in their prime. But it’s Bernstein’s music that elevated the show to greatness and keeps it there. In the documentary made when he recorded the score, the composer indulged himself a moment of pride, marveling at how “fresh” the music still sounds—then he immediately demurred: “Well, it’s not fresh the way Mozart stays fresh.” We must all admire his humility, but who can concur with that pull back? It’s over 60 years since an opening night audience heard that tritone with its augmented fourth sounding out on a Broadway stage for the first time. Yet this music remains as fresh now as then—nay, fresher even, because we know it so much better, thus appreciate it deeper, thus treasure it all the more.

Editors’ Choice: Turntables $50,000 and Up

Clearaudio Master Innovation

$62,000 ($32,000 table only)

The key to great LP playback is lower noise (which equals higher fidelity). The trouble is that mechanical resonances transmitted from turntable, motor, and tonearm tend to fight against this goal, adding distortion rather than subtracting it. Not so with the Clearaudio’s Master Innovation turntable equipped with the extremely low-mass, near-vestigial, carbon-fiber, linear-tracking TT-1MI tonearm. This brilliant Peter Suchy design not only effectively isolates the drive system from the platter (the main platter “floats” on a magnetic field above the drive platter, eliminating any points of physical contact—and thus any transmission of friction and noise); it also eliminates the inevitable tracking/tracing error of pivoted ’arms via Suchy’s equally brilliantly designed linear-tracking tonearm. An engineering masterpiece, one of JV’s references, and TAS’s 2019 Turntable of the Year.

Basis Audio Inspiration

$70,950–$90,200 

(depending on tonearm and vacuum option)

Although it looks like Basis’ 2800 Signature, the Inspiration has more in common with the $165k Work of Art. Sonically, it is revelatory, playing in an entirely different league than the 2800. It is astonishingly quiet, not just in an absence of background noise, but also in stripping a layer of grunge from instrumental timbres. It also seems to allow instrumental decays to hang in space longer, such is its low-level resolving power. When paired with the Basis SuperArm 9, the Inspiration is stunning.

Walker Audio Black Diamond Mk. V

$110,000

With Walker’s diamond-crystal-enhanced SLT tonearm, revised multi-vented air bearing, substantially improved air-bearing feet, more effective clamp and damping fluid, and phenomenal new pump (which no longer needs regular maintenance and is remote-controllable, to boot), this long-time reference phonograph has taken a significant leap forward in overall sonic quality and ease of use. Gorgeous in tone color, extraordinary at retrieving low-level detail, superb in the bass, and exceptional in soundstaging, the Walker has been JV’s benchmark for the better part of a decade. Even after all these years, it remains the best turntable he’s used or heard.

Acoustic Signature Invictus Jr. NEO

$122,995 

A couple of years ago, Acoustic Signature introduced a behemoth turntable—the ultra-wide, ultra-deep, ultra-heavy, ultra-expensive Invictus. Quieter and more imperturbable than any analog front end JV had heard up until then, the Invictus sounded uncannily like a tape player. It was just smoother and, to use an HP phrase, more continuous than the competition in every sonic respect. Comes now a far smaller, more affordable, and, interestingly, more advanced version of the Invictus—the Invictus, Jr. Designed over the last two years (the original was conceived better than six years ago), the Junior takes technological and sonic advantage of all that Acoustic Signature has learned in about half a decade. The result is in certain ways an even better record player (harder-hitting, higher resolution) than the Senior for a lot less dough. TAS’ 2019 Turntable of the Year.

Basis Audio A.J. Conti Transcendence with SuperArm 12.5 

$127,000

The Transcendence is designer A.J. Conti’s radical rethinking of the turntable after more than 30 years of creating some of the world’s best record players. An all-out design, the Transcendence is the result of Conti’s heroic attempt to make LPs sounds like mastertape—his reference in creating the Transcendence. In a design departure from previous Basis ‘tables, the Transcendence is built from stainless-steel rather than acrylic, and the suspension system is entirely new. Sonically, the Transcendence lives up to its name; this turntable has achieved some kind of breakthrough in LP reproduction, rendering the sound of records with a previously unimaginable body, solidity, dynamics, and texture that indeed sound like tape, not vinyl. RH’s reference, and TAS’ Overall Product of the Year for 2019. 

TechDAS Air Force One Premium

$145,000/$162,000 w/titanium platter

This turntable from the distinguished Asian veteran-designer Hideaki Nishikawa is an all-out attempt to exceed every aspect and parameter of turntable performance. An air bearing for the platter, air suction for the vacuum hold-down, and air bladders for the suspension system triangulate the nucleus of the AF One Premium, the first to combine them in a single design. The sonic results are a background blackness and consequent dynamic range the like of which reviewer PS never experienced with vinyl.

Acoustic Signature Invictus Neo

$195,995 

Not too long ago TAS’ Paul Seydor reported that the TechDAS Air Force One turntable with Graham Phantom Elite tonearm produced a sound from LPs that was “not likely to be surpassed in our lifetime.” Well…beep, beep! Here comes the surpasser—and, checking his pulse, JV still thinks it’s his lifetime. This incredibly massive (375 pounds of CNC-milled aluminum and brass), almost Mayan-looking objet du son from Gunther Frohnhoefer of Germany is not only the biggest, heaviest, and most imperturbable record player JV has ever come across, it is also the simplest to use (at least, once you’ve hoisted it onto a suitable support system) and, ahem, (alongside the Walker) the best-sounding. Unbelievably quiet in playback, its SLM-constructed tonearm tracks with the precision of a cutterhead, reproducing instruments with outstanding dimensionality, solidity, color, detail, power, pace—all those good things—and turning the soundstage into a veritable diorama of a symphony orchestra, a string quartet, a jazz quintet, or a rock trio.

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TechDAS Air Force Zero 

$450,000

The Air Force Zero, a 700-pound+ beast devoted to spinning a vinyl platter as unobtrusively as possible, is an immensely impressive creation, a tribute to the ingenuity and seriousness of purpose of its legendary designer, Hideaki Nishikawa. The massive air-bearing platter, composed of multiple layers of stainless steel, gun metal, and tungsten, makes the LP itself look positively diminutive. But the sound that this gorgeous belt-drive ’table produces is something altogether different. It can ramp up to dynamic fortissimos that will shake a room, whether the music is a Mahler symphony or a Led Zeppelin tune. But perhaps the most impressive aspect of the Zero is its refinement. There is a sense of ease to the proceedings, a blissfulness that transports it into a truly lofty realm that perhaps no other competitor can quite match. 

Editors’ Choice: Loudspeakers $100,000 and Up

YG Acoustics Sonja 2.3

$112,800

This flagship from YG Acoustics sports driver diaphragms machined in-house from solid aluminum blocks coupled to new motors that reduce audible and measurable distortion. The Sonja 2.3 also comes with new crossover components. A larger version of the Sonja 2.2, the 2.3 adds a passive bass module on which the rest of the speaker is mounted. Sonically, the Sonja 2.3 delivers world-class performance, with a spectacular sense of presence, transparency to sources, and palpability. Its bass is extended, powerful, and articulate. Its overall coherence, as well as its ability to portray a wide range of image sizes, is exceptional. 

Børresen Acoustics 05 

$132,000

This svelte, handsome, five-foot-tall, seven-driver, two-and-a-halfway floorstander from justly celebrated Danish loudspeaker designer Michael Børresen sounds, surprisingly, very little like the dark, powerful, immensely detailed Raidho speakers that made Børresen’s reputation. Though it uses the same cone/ribbon driver complement as his Raidhos did, the characteristic “bottom-up” tonal palette of Børresen’s Raidhos has dramatically changed. Indeed, minus a bump in the midbass the 05 comes close to a dead-center-neutral timbral balance. And thanks in part to its aerodynamic cabinet, it disappears as a sound source almost completely. Resolution is astonishing without any hint of the analytical, and dynamics remain edgelessly explosive, top to bottom.

Wilson Audio Alexx V 

$135,000

The slightly smaller brother to Wilson’s mighty Chronosonic XVX, the Alexx V delivers huge on looks and performance, and is a massive improvement over the previous Alexx.  This five-driver tower utilizes Wilson’s proprietary V Material, along with every new technology Wilson’s developed.  Although physically massive, its beautiful sweeping lines and open design give it the appearance of being considerably smaller than it is. The Alexx V delves deep into the soul of music. Its finesse, staging, and scale offer not just a sense of realism, but reality itself. The music flows in layers of textural complexity and grace with a sense of ease and effortlessness akin to waves upon an ocean shore; such power yet such serenity. Certainly, one of the most spatially coherent, tonally accurate, emotionally inspiring speakers that reviewer MC has heard. 

Zellaton Reference MkII

$150,000

The Reference MkII is a three-way floorstanding loudspeaker with a single 2″ true cone tweeter, a single 7″ mid/woofer covering the range from 200Hz to 6.5kHz, and three 9″ woofers, all housed in a gorgeously finished, multi-layered, matrix-braced, open-backed enclosure. Every one of the Reference’s drivers uses Zellaton’s unique sandwich cone, rather than a mix of cones and domes made of a variety of materials—which is one reason why the speaker sounds so remarkably ‘stat-like and of a piece. Of course, the main reason the Zellaton Reference MkIIs are reminiscent of electrostats is the forehead-slapping realism with which they reproduce voices and many instruments. With great recordings of acoustic music, the result is a truly remarkable sense of being in the presence of actual vocalists and instrumentalists. 

Gamut Audio Zodiac

$169,000

The Gamut Zodiac, with its uniquely shaped, all-natural wood body, fabricated from 28 different layers, offers one of the most exotic and beautifully crafted forms in high-end audio. Employing uniquely modified drivers—including an SB Acoustics silk 1.5″ dimpled-dome ring-radiator tweeter, a cut-paper 7″ ScanSpeak midrange, and three 10.5″ ScanSpeak woofers—their exceptional bass extension and impact, authentic rendition of timbre, texture, attack, body, and weight, combined with a disarmingly open, spacious, and organic presentation, afford them an extraordinary degree of musical insight, almost putting them into a class all their own. 

Magico M6

$172,000

With an aerodynamically shaped carbon-fiber enclosure, the stunningly great M6 represents a design departure for Magico. The rounded enclosure is designed to remove all sharp edges to create an ultra-low-diffraction platform for the drivers. Those drivers are three 10″ woofers, a 6″ midrange (both of which are graphene-infused Nano-Tech), and a 1.1″ diamond-coated beryllium-dome tweeter. The bass performance of the sealed system is spectacular, tonally and dynamically, and the upper bass has warmth, richness, and density of color without sounding thick or bloated. Best of all, the low-diffraction cabinet allows the tweeter to disappear, the treble sounding completely smooth and natural. The soundstaging and ability of the speaker to disappear are sensational. One of the world’s greatest loudspeakers. 

Rockport Technologies Lyra

$186,500

The Lyra is a three-and-a-half-way, five-driver design with a rear-firing port. Two 6″ midrange drivers flank the 1″ waveguide-loaded tweeter, with two 10″ drivers on the bottom. The enclosure is made from two massive shells of cast aluminum, with the cavity between them filled with a proprietary, high-density urethane core material. Musically, the Lyra delivers a horn-like visceral immediacy with its stunning dynamic performance. Yet for all its verve and panache, this is a speaker of great delicacy, capable of conveying the subtlest nuance of texture and shading. It’s also one of the most beautiful in timbre that RH has heard, combining high resolution with lush textural liquidity. 

Wilson Benesch Eminence

$249,000

This flagship speaker from England’s 43-year-old Wilson Benesch is a world-class performer that competes in the upper echelon of today’s loudspeakers. The unusual design (isobaric woofers, ultra-tall and narrow carbon fiber and aluminum enclosure, custom drivers) is an example of form following function. The bass is exquisitely detailed and resolved, revealing nuances of texture and dynamics in a way that is simply sensational. Dynamics are whip-fast without etch, and the soundstage is simply without peer. The top-to-bottom balance is spot-on. The Eminence is capable of completely disappearing in a way that unfailingly communicates the deepest musical expression. The bottom end favors speed and articulation over the last measure of weight and authority. 

MBL 101 X-treme Mk II 

$317,000

Comprising two Radialstrahler columns and two outboard, powered subwoofer stacks (with six 12″ woofers in each stack), the 101 X-tremes are giants. Expensive giants. But until you find a speaker system that sounds more like the real thing (on every kind of music) for less money…well, you’re gonna have to settle for second best. As good as cones-in-a-box speakers have gotten to be, nothing else, dynamic or planar, sounds like these gargantuan Radialstrahlers, because very little else projects its energy from top to bottom throughout a true 360 degrees, like instruments themselves do. As a result, the 101 X-tremes simply own the third dimension. What JV said in his original review of the X-tremes a decade ago still holds true. Listening to every other transducer is like going to a movie of a concert—a two-dimensional medium trying to imitate a three-dimensional one. Listening to the 101 X-tremes is like going to the concert itself. 

Wilson Audio Chronosonic XVX 

$335,000

In RH’s view, the XVX sets a new standard of realism in reproduced music. The massive four-way, seven-driver speaker, housed in five separate enclosures, features more innovations than any other product in Wilson Audio’s 49-year history. These include new drivers, cabinet materials, crossover components, even binding posts. The XVX shares with Wilson’s $850,000 WAMM Master Chronosonic the ability to time-align the driver outputs at the listening positions with astonishing accuracy—within just two microseconds. This compares with the 12-microsecond precision of previous Wilson products. The result is a speaker with startlingly realistic reproduction of timbre and presence, a voluptuous yet highly resolved midrange, a silky-smooth treble, uncanny transient fidelity, and phenomenal visceral bass impact. A world-class reference that advances the state of the art in loudspeaker design. RH’s reference. 

Wilson Audio WAMM Master Chronosonic

$850,000 (includes Master Subsonic subwoofers & ActivXO electronic crossover)

With the WAMM Master Chronosonic, an entirely re-conceived version of the legendary original, David Wilson has broken new sonic ground. A vanishingly low noise floor supplies the foundation for the WAMM’s sonic prowess. Its scale and dynamic power must be heard to be believed, and even then, it requires something of a mental adjustment to comprehend just how expansive a soundstage it reproduces. Despite its large size, however, the most beguiling aspect of the WAMM may not be its capacious soundstage, deep bass, or seemingly limitless dynamics. Rather, it is the ability the loudspeaker has to draw you into the music, banishing any sense of electronic haze or glaze. It is literally and figuratively a towering achievement. 

Future TAS: Toneoptic rpm

<p class=”p1″><span class=”s1″>An exciting way to store and showcase your vinyl, the rpm is handcrafted in Los Angeles and consists of a wooden cube with aluminum divider tabs and a patent-pending 90-degree rotation mechanism (flip through your records while tucking them back in, library-style). Each unit stores 60–75 records and comes with three dividers to allow for categorizing or organizing 12″, 10″, and 7″ records. As much about the design aesthetics as they are about unique functionality, U.S. Toneoptic sees itself as establishing a new luxury segment in vinyl storage to elevate and supplement audio room interior designs. For audiophiles and music lovers who demand the best in LP playback, Toneoptic wants to elevate their storage in an equivalent manner. </span></p>
<p class=”p1″><strong><span class=”s2″>Price:</span></strong><span class=”s3″> $1800–$2200 per cube. </span></p>
<p class=”p1″><a href=”http://toneoptic.com”><span class=”s3″>toneoptic.com</span></a></p>